One academic per university at overseas conferences, says Brazil

Ministry of Education forced to review decree that limits the number of researchers who can travel to events after outcry

February 11, 2020
Source: Getty

Researchers in Brazil have expressed anger at an “unbelievable” government decree that limits the number of academics who may attend an international conference to just one per institution.

The order, announced by Brazil’s Ministry of Education, states that only one professor, researcher or other employee from a federal institution is allowed to attend an international academic event. For scholarly gatherings in Brazil, two representatives from each university or research institute may attend.

The document says the number of participants permitted may be increased “on exceptional basis and when there is a duly justified need”, which would be decided by the ministry.

For Brazilian researchers, the decree was further evidence of Jair Bolsonaro’s attacks on higher education, especially federal institutions, which have faced large funding cuts since he was elected president in January 2019.

The decree even limits trips to overseas scientific events in cases when a researcher covers the cost from their own pocket or from an international funding source.

Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo, said the move was “a clear attempt to curtail academics’ freedom of speech and research”.

Attending conferences is vital because such events “are a fundamental part of scientific development”, she said. “Science is made with the exchange of ideas [and] knowledge. Those people currently running the ministry have no idea about how science works.”

Although the autonomy of federal universities is guaranteed by constitutional law, Mr Bolsonaro’s government has regularly attacked their independence, Professor Marotti de Mello said. For example, the Ministry of Education has “repeatedly tried to influence and change the way federal universities elect their deans and presidents”.

Since the limit on conference attendance was announced, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science and other scientific bodies have written to the ministry to urge it to retract the decision. The restriction “poses an imminent risk for bilateral missions and major international collaborations, in which Brazilian participation has been very prominent”, their letter says.

In light of the reaction from the academic community, the ministry said it would consider revising the document, which will be “analysed for possible modifications, in response to the request of researchers, professors and deans of the university and federal institutes”, the ministry said.

Leonardo Ferreira, a postdoctoral researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, said recent government actions, including the appointment of a creationist to lead the agency that regulates postgraduate degrees, indicated that there was a “clear movement to undermine public universities and research institutes in Brazil that are mostly composed of critics of the current president”.

Jefferson Cardia Simões, professor of glaciology and polar geography at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, questioned the objectives of such a measure in the first place. “Are they trying to limit contacts with the outside world and the formation of international networks?” he asked.

The move was an “aggressive action against the spread of knowledge and international cooperation and scientific diplomacy”, he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Scholars must go solo to conferences

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